In a Better World: Denmark’s Oscar Winner, Directed by Susanne Bier

“In a Better World,” from the gifted Danish director Susanne Bier, is a overly simple but intelligent exploration of the world we live in, with all the chaos, violence and disorder that threaten to erupt if we are not watchful and careful enough to examine our very decisions and daily actions.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

“In a Better World,” which is Denmark’s entry for the Oscars, played at the 2010 Toronto Film Fest, and will be released by Sony Classics in April 2011 in a platform mode.

The narrative, written by Bier and her regular collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, contrasts the values and mores of two physical milieus that at first sight appear to have nothing in common.

They are bridged by the film’s protagonist, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt of “Everlasting Moments” fame), a doctor who commutes between his home in a seemingly idyllic town in Denmark, and his work at a refugee camp in a war-torn African country.  The region’s politics remain too vague, but suffice is to say that a vicious, sadistic warlord exercises his power in an arbitrary way.

In these two very different worlds, Anton and his family are faced with conflicts that lead them to difficult choices between passivity and activism, violence and revenge, redemption and forgiveness.

Early on it’s established that Anton and his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who have two young sons, are separated and struggling with the impending divorce.

Their older, ten-year-old son Elias is a sensitive boy, who is bullied and beaten mercilessly at school, bur he is too weak to fight back Sofus, the class bully.  That is, until he meets Christian, a new boy who has just moved from London with his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen).  Christian defends Elias and the two boys quickly develop an intimate bond.

Christian’s mother had recently lost her battle with cancer, and he is still greatly troubled by her death. Christian’s heartbroken father Claus finds it impossible to deal with his son’s problems, his hardened attitude toward life, suppressed anger, and volatile personality.  For his part, Elias resents the impending divorce of his parents, who have shared custody.

The tale then switches to the hard, demanding work and other ordeals that Anton faces as a result of his position.

In due course, the lives of both Anton and Elias are put in danger—albeit in very different circumstances.  When Christian involves Elias in a dangerous act of revenge, it puts to test their friendship and eventually results in tragic consequences (which cannot be described here).

With growing rift between parents and children, Elias and Christian are basically left to their own devices, and their clandestine acts of vengeance become more and more drastic

The climactic scene involves a volatile encounter between Anton, Elias, Christian and a violent mechanic (Kim Bodnia, who had appeared in “Pusher”).  Troubled and confused by what he had experienced in Africa, Anton finds it impossible to respond in credible or satisfying ways to Christian’s demand that he deals directly with the mechanic’s abusive conduct.

Among the provocative issues that the film raises are societal definition of masculinity and how various people are influenced (and damaged) by it, what should be the nature of parental authority, and what exactly is the meaning of male responsibility.

As a director, Bier shows the inevitable limitations we encounter in trying to exercise greater control over our lives in trying to reach some semblance of order and balance in our personal-domestic lives as well as in our broader political ones.

A morality tale, which is sporadically effective as an emotionally touching coming-of-age story, “In a Better World” suggests that, ultimately, it may be the responsibility of the parents (in this case men) to help their children come to terms with the increasing complex and difficult situations they encounter.

About Susanne Bier

Bier has previously made “Brothers,” in 2004, which examined the relationship between the First World and the Third World.  The movie was remade in English by Jim Sheridan, starring Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, but was not nearly as good or powerful as the original Danish film.

“After the Wedding,” which was nominated for the 2006 Best Foreign Language Oscar, contrasted the domestic and societal arenas in a provocative manner.  It’s too bad that she chose to make her American feature debut with “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berre

End Note:

Since this review was written, “In a better World” went on to win the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.